An avalanche of e-mail has arrived from readers agitated about the battle over Sen. John F. Kerry's Vietnam war record launched by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Kerry has made his service a centerpiece of his campaign, and these veterans -- regardless of the ties some of them have to the Bush family and Republican political circles -- have a right to challenge Kerry about it. It is important to know whether presidential candidates have presented themselves falsely. It's also worth noting similar indirect links exist between Kerry's campaign and Democratic Party-affiliated groups attacking President Bush.
Several news organizations have made contributions looking into these charges. But The Post, I believe, has been at the forefront recently, especially through the reporting of staff writer Michael Dobbs, whose stories, one reader says, "have been a model of evenhanded journalism." Dobbs found that both sides have withheld information from the public record and provided an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate picture.
My sense in reading those stories is that, while they found holes in both sides, the most serious holes were poked in the case made by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Military records obtained by Dobbs through a Freedom of Information Act request showed, in an Aug. 19 story, that the citation accompanying a Bronze Star won by one of the Swift boat challengers, Larry Thurlow, in March 1969 contradicted Thurlow's claim that Kerry and his boat were not under fire during the mission for which Kerry received the same medal.
On Aug. 22, Dobbs's reporting cast doubt on a claim by another Kerry critic and Swift boat vet, John E. O'Neill, who contends that the description in Thurlow's Bronze Star citation must have come from "Kerry's after-action report," and that somehow the initials "KJW" at the end of the report identify it as Kerry's work. But Dobbs's report noted that Kerry's initials are different, and that a review of other records at the Naval Historical Center reveals other reports with the "KJW" initials that describe incidents in which Kerry was not present.
In that story, and another piece that day, The Post also made references to a lengthy, first-person account by an editor at the Chicago Tribune, William B. Rood, that had appeared in the Tribune. Rood contradicted critics who had challenged Kerry's Silver Star of February 1969. There were three Swift boats involved in that action. Rood was the skipper of one, Kerry another. The third skipper later died in Vietnam. Rood wrote that Kerry's critics are "armed with stories that I know to be untrue."
Other stories also attracted attention. On Aug. 21, the top front-page story, by Jim VandeHei, was about another forthcoming Swift group TV advertisement. The top two paragraphs contain strong language about Kerry "betraying fellow soldiers and dishonoring the country" because of his actions when he later became a leader of the antiwar movement. Just below this story is another, by reporters Josh White and Brian Faler, also leading with strongly worded anecdotes from some veterans about Kerry.
I thought the decision to make the TV preview story the lead "news" story in the paper was odd. And both stories, it seemed to me and some readers, needed more historical context. There is no doubt that Kerry's antiwar role, in particular his 1971 Senate committee testimony about atrocities, offended large numbers of vets and is a legitimate issue. Kerry has admitted that his language was "sometimes excessive." But there were many thousands of veterans who did eventually turn against the war, and there were some documented atrocities, such as the massacre at My Lai. This year, the Toledo Blade newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting other such actions by an Army unit dubbed Tiger Force in Vietnam.
Furthermore, it was not until media reporter Howard Kurtz, on Aug. 25, took a closer look at the new Swift boat ad that readers were told "Kerry's testimony is selectively edited in a way that is misleading." The ad, Kurtz pointed out, deletes the first six words of Kerry's remarks. This makes it appear he is giving a firsthand account of atrocities when he actually had begun by telling of an earlier conference in Detroit where some 150 veterans had told stories of atrocities.
The reporting is not over. Questions remain, including queries about allowing independent access by reporters to Kerry's original Navy records, and whether Kerry was in Cambodian waters on a secret mission in 1968. The Swift boat group says he was not there, but on CNN's "News- night" last Tuesday reporter Joe Johns played a tape of a 1971 conversation between O'Neill and then President Richard Nixon in which O'Neill says: "I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water." Nixon asks: "In a Swift boat?" "Yes, sir," answered O'Neill.
Whatever is still to come, this is also known: Kerry, from a privileged background, joined the Navy and volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs the Navy had in Vietnam. Many others, coming from comfortable circumstances, were able to avoid service through deferments, or to miss Vietnam through Reserve or National Guard duty at home. Kerry received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and Silver Star, awards that have not been repudiated by the Navy or the Defense Department. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), after the first critical Swift boat ad appeared, called it "dishonest and dishonorable." President Bush has said Kerry "served admirably, and he ought to be proud of his record."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.